For the seventh time since 1971, when Young Victorian Theatre Company was launched in Baltimore to champion the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, the company will present "The Gondoliers."
Devotees of the G&S canon will need no encouragement to catch the production, which opens Saturday at Roland Park Country School. Newcomers should find the piece an easy introduction to the genre's many charms.
"This is definitely one of Gilbert and Sullivan's best," says Brian Goodman, general manager of the Young Vic. "I love it — really, I'm not just saying that. There is nothing especially ingenious about the plot; it's a retread of Gilbert's earlier plots, with mixing up babies at birth and that kind of crap. But Sullivan's music is gorgeous. This was their last big hit."
It almost never materialized. Although the two London-born collaborators had been going strong since their first success in 1875, they seemed headed toward a breakup in the early months of 1889.
Sullivan wrote that comic opera had "become distasteful"; he wanted to work on something loftier, where the music would be "the first consideration," the words secondary. Gilbert's retort: "If we are to meet, it must be as master and master, not as master and servant."
Things were so testy that reconciliation seemed unlikely. But when the composer got his chance to write a grand opera, collaborating with a librettist Gilbert recommended, Sullivan softened his tone and decided he could do a comic piece as well. G&S were a team again. The result was "The Gondoliers."
Opening night, Dec. 7, 1889, at the Savoy Theatre generated hearty ovations and reviews. (One newspaper was especially impressed that the female choristers wore shorter skirts than usual: "The gratifying fact is revealed to a curious world that [they] are a very well-legged lot.")
"The Gondoliers" ran for 554 performances, just slightly fewer than "H.M.S. Pinafore" and not that far behind the number for "The Mikado," and was the first G&S work to be given a royal command performance for Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle.
It did not prove as popular across the ocean, though. American companies, used to raking in the bucks for any Gilbert and Sullivan show, nicknamed it "Gone Dollars."
But "Gondoliers" remains a gem of melodic invention and effervescent orchestration. The first 20 minutes or so are entirely sung, the only such case in the G&S repertoire; it seems as if Sullivan got his wish, after all, to put music first.
The plot revolves around two Venetian gondolier brothers, Marco and Giuseppe. One of them is said to be heir to the throne of Barataria, an island kingdom where rank is not recognized. To find out who will get the crown, the gondoliers head to Barataria, where assorted complications and surprises ensue.
The plot, spiced by an impoverished Spanish duke and duchess, a grand inquisitor and an old woman with a secret, bubbles along from sparking number to sparkling number. The text takes some gentle potshots at politics and society, but this is not a deeply satirical work.
"It's the sunniest and most ebullient of all the Gilbert and Sullivan works," says James Harp, stage director for the Young Vic production. "And it's an incredible ensemble piece; the chorus is onstage all the time."
Joining the Young Vic chorus will be a cast that includes Logan Rucker (Marco), Andrew Pardini (Giuseppe) and Jennifer Blades (Duchess of Plaza-Toro). To help boost the score's dance numbers, the company will feature Christina Denny, the 2013 Miss Maryland. "She is a great, great dancer," Goodman says.
Like Gilbert and Sullivan troupes elsewhere in the country, the Young Vic is aiming to attract new, younger audiences.
"When this company was founded in 1971, the people in their 30s and 40s who came were raised on Gilbert and Sullivan; they’re now in their 70s and 80s," Goodman says. "How do we bring this art form to the YouTube generation?""The Gondoliers" will be performed over the next two weekends at Roland Park Country School.